BOSTON - It really was the most wonderful time of the year for the Bruins on Wednesday.
For the first time this season, the Black & Gold had its entire roster present for practice, as Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Jake DeBrusk, and Urho Vaakanainen all participated for the first time since suffering their injuries. Kevan Miller, who has been skating with the group since last week, also took part in the session.
"It's always good to have the core guys out there," said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. "They mean a lot to this team, so that's probably the biggest, most noticeable difference. A little jump in everyone's step knowing that those guys are hopefully right around the corner."
The happy returns don't mean Boston is completely back to full health, however. None of the above mentioned players are ready for game action just yet, though Bergeron appears to be the closest and is targeting this weekend's games against Nashville (Saturday at TD Garden) and Carolina (Sunday in Raleigh) after missing the last 15 games with rib and shoulder injuries.
"Feeling good. Was definitely a positive and good step forward today," said Bergeron, who will consult with the medical staff to determine the best time for his return. "Been skating pretty hard with [skating and skills coach Kim Brandvold] and the other guys that joined practice today…to actually get out on the ice in a practice situation feeling good is definitely a great step forward. I feel very positive."
Video: Bergeron participates in full contact practice
For Bergeron, the last month was one that tested his patience. His rib and sternoclavicular injuries - the result of being rammed into the boards by Stars forward Radek Faksa on Nov. 16 in Dallas - required rest for the first two weeks, before his rehab could begin in earnest.
"There wasn't much you could do, especially for your ribs. You let them heal," said Bergeron. "And the shoulder was the same, the cartilage was fractured - that's just time, basically. The treatments were pretty straightforward that way. Once the pain went down, we started adding some exercises and strengthening to make sure it feels better."
DeBrusk and Vaakanainen, both progressing through their concussion protocols, were wearing maroon non-contact jerseys for practice. Miller has been cleared for practice contact, but won't be ready for game action until sometime next week as his fractured larynx continues to heal.
Chara, meanwhile, was donning a regular black practice sweater, only because ¬- fittingly enough - the maroon non-contact jerseys were not the right size.
"I feel better, making progress every day, so that's nice," said Chara, who has missed the last 16 games with a left MCL injury. "It was definitely nice to be out there…we take it day-by-day. We'll see again tomorrow how it's going to be after today's practice, but definitely want to play. That's what we are here for.
"But again, want to make sure it's in a good position and strong enough to be battling again at a high-speed level."
Video: Chara returns to practice with the team
DeBrusk said the last couple of weeks have been a learning process for him as he deals with the magnitude of head injuries. The 21-year-old winger took a Danton Heinen slap shot to the back of the head on Nov. 26 in Toronto, but played for the next four games.
It wasn't until the Bruins' loss in Tampa Bay on Dec. 6 that he realized he wasn't feeling well enough to continue pushing it.
"I would say I wasn't straight up with it," said DeBrusk, who added that his symptoms in the aftermath of the injury were inconsistent. "I think it was one of those things where it happened to me last year, and I was playing well at the time and I kind of just kept wanting to play. I didn't think it was what it was. Whether that was me telling myself that or what, it obviously kept getting worse.
"Obviously in that Tampa Bay game I was in a place where I needed to be honest. I felt the effects from that…thankfully I'm young enough and it was kind of a freak accident. It wasn't a major one where now I'm feeling good and ready to go back out with a vengeance."
Video: DeBrusk speaks with media after return to practice
Cassidy was not quite ready to write out his future lineup, saying he's put "little" thought into what his lines will look like when Bergeron and DeBrusk return. He has said he has not ruled out the possibility of splitting up Boston's original top line of Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak. David Krejci has fit in seamlessly as the line's center over the last couple of weeks.
"Let's face it, Bergy's going to the top of the lineup," said Cassidy. "It's just a matter of if the whole line's staying together. Some of that's incumbent on Jake's health. Is he ready? Will they come in together? Now you're talking about Krech's old winger as well."
Bergeron is not concerned about where he will fit into the lineup when he returns, saying he will play anywhere with anyone.
"I'm just gonna try to be myself. That's the bottom line. I don't care. I've said that before," said Bergeron. "We're a team and you want to contribute and wherever you're thrown back in, you try to make the most of it.
"We have great players, whether it's with Marchy or Pasta or whether it's with Heino or JD or [Joakim Nordstrom] or whoever it is, it's OK by me. I'm not going to be the guy complaining."
On the back end, Cassidy said Chara would return to the B's top pairing with Charlie McAvoy. But Cassidy will have a decision to make - should no one else go down - when Chara and Miller are ready for game action.
"That's a little different because then we'll have seven healthy, and we haven't had to deal with that all year. That was a big discussion in August. Remember August?" Cassidy quipped.
Video: Cassidy provides updates on Bruins injuries
Following a three-game stint with the Bruins after being claimed off waivers from Dallas last week, Gemel Smith was placed back on waivers on Tuesday afternoon. The 24-year-old, scoreless in those three games, cleared on Wednesday and has been assigned to Providence.
Wednesday's Practice Lineup
Brad Marchand - David Krejci - David Pastrnak
Joakim Nordstrom - Colby Cave - David Backes
Ryan Donato - Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson - Danton Heinen
Sean Kuraly - Noel Acciari - Chris Wagner
Patrice Bergeron - Jake DeBrusk
Torey Krug - Brandon Carlo
Matt Grzelcyk - Charlie McAvoy
John Moore - Steven Kampfer
Zdeno Chara - Kevan Miller
Video: Bergeron, Chara, DeBrusk practice and near return